If, as James Joyce said, the useful lifespan of a newspaper is one day, how long does a free newspaper last for? In Madrid, one of the many, many free papers that are scattered throughout the Metro network every day is called 20 Minutos, which seems a fair estimate. As you might expect, you don't get a very high standard of news journalism from the free press - Metro, Qué!, 20 Minutos and the other ones whose names I forget just tend to feature the exact same news stories written in a fairly clumsy and sensationalist style. But what can you expect - they are free after all. And because of this, it's not unusual to see people carrying two or three of them to skim through as they move around the city.
As a result, it's actually quite unusual to see people reading 'proper' newspapers, by which I include the generally ubiquitous football papers Marca and As. Which is a shame, because in my opinion Spain has some excellent newspapers. What's wrong, then, with the free ones? Well, it's not too outrageous to suggest that when something is free, it's often because it has no or next to no actual value. Inevitably Qué! (admittedly much better than the others, being a fairly convincing tabloid newspaper with a fair amount of seemingly genuine interest in what the readers think, and which has recently started an aggressive advertising campaign, which is a bit odd considering it's free) and all the others just exist to sell adverts. At least with what used to be called a 'journal of record', you pay your money in return for a certain level of professionalism in terms of how they gather and present information, and you pay to read the considered opinions of experienced people whose opinions actually count for something. With the free ones, it's pot luck whether or not you get as much as you pay for, so to speak.
I'd hazard a guess and suggest that this relatively new and rapidly expanding phenomen is due to the very low value that we place on news information and commentary these days. There is just so much newsprint out there, any number of TV channels trying to fill up airtime without upsetting anyone important, and besides all that there is the internet, teeming with unsolicited and ill-considered rants like, erm, this one.
Obviously free newspapers and magazines are nothing new in most cities, although I suspect that they are expanding elsewhere at much the same rate. Newspapers and magazines, in fact, of often the most surprising kind. In the National Express ticket office in Sheffield in the summer there was a huge pile of Chinese-language copies of the Epoch Times, and although I wasn't able to read it much I did pick up an English language edition a few days later in a Portuguese cafe in London. If you're not familiar with the paper, it's Taiwan-based and has some connection to the outlawed Falun Gong religious cult, which is why it publishes a great deal of very anti-CCP articles, which although not always very persuasively written, are always good fun to read - some people seem to have a huge problem with the FG, and I don't know a huge amount about them, but to be honest if anyone dedicates their time to the destruction of the Chinese Communist Party, whether or not they decide to go to the somewhat puzzling extent of setting themselves on fire, they have my wholehearted support, and are welcome to borrow my lighter anytime.
As I say, their newspaper reads like it's written by someone with a very definite purpose and agenda - but as I said earlier, what the hell, it's free. If someone picks it up, which is quite possible given the kind of random places where it's distributed, under the mistaken apprehension that it's just some normal expat newspaper for overseas Chinese, it will just get jumbled up and/or discarded along with all the other free and mostly useless information they've gathered recently. Unlike when we've invested money in a publication which we have some reason to trust, with the free press we're generally I think disinclined to question the sources or the veracity of the information presented, or the motivations of those who are responsible for it.
Speaking, then, of publications for overseas Chinese and for people interested in China, on the bus yesterday I came across yet another free paper, printed in Spanish, with the title of The Mandarin. It is a weekly publication which, surprise surprise, features story after story of very, very good news about the Chinese economy ('President Of World Bank Praises Social And Economic Progress Of China', 'Chinese Outbound Investment To Continue Growing Rapidly This Year', 'Chinese Economy In For A Smooth Landing'), along with articles about the mystery of Guilin and Tibet, the exotic and colourful traditions of the ethnic minorities that China is a proud host to, a page dedicated to preparations for 2008, a story about those (trojan) pandas and their long-delayed journey to Taiwan Province, and a special page for people starting to learn Mandarin.
For someone with a mild interest in Chinese culture, it might all seem perfectly innocuous. As I said, when we sit, or more often stand, and read a free newspaper, we don't usually think in detail about the credentials or the motivations of those who've written it. Glossy magazines about China on sale at kiosks or in newsagents around the world contain pretty much the same information, after all.
However, there is for me something about finding publications like this freely distributed in relatively free countries which I find disturbing, and I think it's the following: in Wild Swans, Jung Chang talks about how the only western publication they could get hold of during the Cultural Revolution was the newspaper of a tiny group of Maoist sympathisers who were ignored or laughed at in the West. Now it seems that the inheritors of that insane tradition are exploiting our carelessness about what information about the world we allow to enter our heads.
Is the value that we place on news information now so low that we will allow the Chinese Communist Party to distribute state propaganda as though it were just another innocent random source of information about the world?
If that's the inevitable consequence of this explosion of 'free' newspapers, I'd prefer to stick with the Guardian or El País - or maybe even Marca or As.